‘Schools can open safely’: Even though CDC guidance labels Dane County high transmission community, students can go back to the classroom

MADISON, Wis. — On Friday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a list of guidelines to help schools get back to in-person learning.

It includes many of the mitigation steps we’ve been hearing about for almost a year: wearing masks, physical distancing, handwashing, cleaning and contact tracing. The guidance isn’t much different than the recommendations Public Health Madison & Dane County has had out for months.

“It indicates that schools can open safely, recognizing that we’re not in a place where there’s zero risk in our community. But layering in all of these mitigation factors can help support the ability to reopen schools,” said PHMDC Director Janel Heinrich.

The federal guidelines also lay out four levels of community transmission, from blue (low transmission) to red (high transmission). The levels are measured by two criteria.Cdc Transmission Data

The percentage of positive tests in Dane County puts us in blue, where K-12 could all open for full-in person instruction with those mitigation strategies. But our new cases over the last week land us in red, where the CDC recommends elementary students should stay in a hybrid mode and middle and high schoolers should remain virtual.

“That’s what it says, but I think if you can continue to provide that layered mitigation that it provides more wrap around safety around all of the ages,” said Heinrich.

The CDC also lists a couple additional mitigation strategies, or what Heinrich called “bonus strategies.” Those include vaccinations for teachers and regular testing in schools. Both would provide extra support if they were widely available, but right now they’re not.

The CDC said students and teachers can go back to in-person learning without those extra barriers of protection.

Heinrich said in-school testing could be available eventually, but it’s not happening consistently in Dane County schools right now. Still, there is a lot of testing capacity available, including at the Alliant Energy Center where Heinrich said there haven’t been many people coming through.

As for vaccines, teachers and school staff have been put in phase 1B of Wisconsin’s vaccine rollout, but that group isn’t expected to be eligible for at least another two weeks.

With the Madison Metropolitan School District’s announcement last week to bring some kids back to the classroom in March, Heinrich said all Dane County schools will have some sort of in-person learning soon. Many schools have been using these recommended mitigation strategies for months.